Opinion: Daily Journal

On Rodeos, Markets, & Tar Babies

RALEIGH – I typically try to lead off “Daily Journal” columns with a sentence or paragraph that intrigues, summarizes, or lampoons. But try as I might, I just can’t improve on this opening passage from a Lumberton Robesonian article published Wednesday:

LUMBERTON – Organizers of the Old Timer’s Workday and Festival say the addition of a rodeo competition to the event would increase interest in the Southeastern Regional Agricultural Center/Farmers Market and make it more marketable. Esther Wood, president of the East Howellsville Saddle Club, went to the county Board of Commissioners meeting Monday to ask for $10,000 to help put on the two-day event.

Anyone who has been around government budgeting – be it at the federal, state, or local level – will immediately recognize the Tar-Baby Syndrome. A pet project, touted as a public-policy knockout or economic-development bonanza, secures its initial government funding. It fails. Its boosters say that the project is on the cusp of success and just needs a little more money. It gets it. It continues to fail.

That’s because we only worked on one side of the problem, and now we need additional funding to address the other side, the project’s advocates insist. They get another round of subsidy. Still nothing of consequence is accomplished.

Such budgetary tar babies run the gamut: new software packages for public agencies, rail-transit projects, convention centers, education reforms, the Global TransPark. Finding it difficult if not impossible to admit error, public officials and lobbyists for largesse simply argue that the initial “investment” didn’t work because it was too small. Rather than avoiding the trap of throwing good money after bad, they suggest that throwing cash now will change the previously thrown cash from bad to good.

Look at the Lumberton case. Here we have a questionable idea from the outset – a government-run farmer’s market outside of a major metropolitan area, funded in part by state taxpayers. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t generate enough traffic to begin to justify the initial investment. Rather than chalking it up to being, well, just a bad idea, boosters suggest that if the taxpayers are compelled to spend additional dollars on a related program – subsidizing a rodeo, in this case – the situation will improve.

There’s a bit of a parallel between the Southeastern Farmer’s Market and the case of an expensive trolley line run by Charlotte officials through its highly subsidized convention center. While otherwise dissimilar, both facilities share the characteristic of being empty of revenue-generating customers much of the time. Instead of recognizing the failed nature of the convention center, city officials decided, at considerable expense to taxpayers, to run the trolley through it in an attempt to jazz it up.

Which was about as jazzy as, say, Up With People.

I understand perfectly why it is so difficult in politics to say, simply, “We screwed up. That was a bad idea.” Politicians who admit error give their potential opponents ammunition for campaign ads. But giving in to the Tar Baby Syndrome is hardly in their long-term political interest. Rather than taking a hit and moving on, they perpetuate embarrassment and make the final fiscal and political reckoning more painful.

This is, naturally, not an argument against having a rodeo at the Old Timer’s Workday and Festival. Sounds like fun – but not like a priority for government funds.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.